A surge in US-bound migrants has been a boon to human smuggling rings in Ecuador – in a pattern that is playing out across much of the region.
According to the journalistic outlet Connectas and 1800Migrante, an organization that provides legal advice to Ecuadoreans, human smugglers are charging an estimated $15,000 for passage to the United States, El Comercio reported.
Illegal border crossings into the United States by Ecuadorean migrants have spiked this year. About 100,000 Ecuadorean nationals were detained between January and September, compared with 13,000 during the same period in 2020. Ecuadoreans now comprise the fourth-largest nationality encountered at the border, behind Mexicans, Guatemalans and Hondurans.
In response to the spike in irregular migration by Ecuadoreans, Mexico and Guatemala have required that the country's citizens obtain tourist visas.
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But Ecuadoreans are not the only migrants starting journeys to the US from the Andean country. In August, more than 27,000 people of other nationalities, particularly Haitians, crossed the Ecuador-Colombia border, according to Colombian authorities.
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Migrant smuggling networks are cashing in on economic desperation in Ecuador, a country that also happens to have visa policies and porous borders that make it an ideal launching pad for human smuggling.
Based on the number of Ecuadorian migrants detained at the border and the $15,000 smuggling fee appraised by 1800migrante.com, El Comercio estimates that human smuggling networks earned as much as $1.5 million between January and July of this year. However, it is unclear how accurate this figure is as it seems to assume that all the Ecuadorean migrants use coyotes. While police say some have been contacting smugglers through the messaging service Whatsapp and social networks, many go without help.
Economic difficulties caused by the pandemic are one of the main factors pushing people out of Ecuador, where the price of food, housing, and transport have increased. Only three out of ten people are formally employed. Ecuador is also seeing a dramatic increase in crime and violence.
Coyotes are jumping on the opportunity to profit off the current situation, advertising their services on social media networks such as TikTok and Facebook. “If you want to achieve the American dream, we can help you, we leave from Ecuador," says one such social media post.
In addition, Ecuador’s permissive visa laws make it attractive to migrants of other nationalities seeking to reach the US through migratory routes in South and Central American countries. Only citizens of 11 countries require visas: China, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia and Senegal.
Migrants of Haitian, African and Asian descent have been crossing from Ecuador into Colombia’s southern municipality of Ipiales, according to authorities, from which they aim to travel north to Panama.
Many are traveling on trails from the border city of Tulcán, in Ecuador’s northern department of Carchi. The same routes are also used to traffic weapons and contraband and are often controlled by criminal groups.
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Migrants drawn to work in the United States have been a windfall for smuggling networks elsewhere in South America. Haitians in Brazil have left the country in droves, and smugglers have profited by moving them across the country's border with Peru.
Interpol recently announced the dismantling of a ring that smuggled some 1,000 Haitian migrants from Chile, including 267 Chilean children under the age of six, all born to Haitian migrants. Some had been traveling with adults other than their parents. Others had been found abandoned or orphaned. The ring, which promoted its services via Whatsapp, transported the migrants into Peru, from where they began their journey north.
Colombia, meanwhile, continues to serve as a staging ground for a massive wave of migrants making the dangerous trek through the Darién Gap.